Readings: Isaiah 7: 10-14, Luke 1: 34-45
I sat thinking about the discussions after a conference of church ministers talking about eccentrics in the church - many priests are. It had been a good evening, and we had laughed at ourselves.
And yet Christianity is eccentric – is counter-cultural. Jesus Christ changes things. We are called to proclaim that ‘Jesus Christ is the one truth in a world of uncertainty’.
Today we are going to reflect on the fact that he was, at one time, a tiny baby. We are going to look at the infancy narratives – the accounts of his nativity. They occur in three of the four gospels. John placed Jesus in the timeline of history, starting his gospel like the start of Genesis ‘In the beginning was the word…’. Matthew wrote his gospel to show how Jesus fulfils the Old Testament prophesies. It was written for a Jewish readership. In my preface to a book entitled ‘The Gospel of Fulfilment, Exploring the Gospel of Matthew’, written by priest and scholar Patrick Whitworth, I said: ‘ This book helps set out the evidence base for our Lord – the certainty of hope in the mystery of God – and looks ahead to a time when, in reply to someone saying to us, ‘Oh this religion is not for me’ or ‘I’m not a churchgoer’ we’ll be able to say, ‘Oh really, why not, there is so much evidence’’’. Our first reading is one such prophecy.
Today, I want to look at Luke.
Before I do, let me introduce myself. I sat here in this chapel in Emmanuel College, Cambridge, a tenor in the choir, 45 years ago. I read medicine; and my adult faith journey started here. I grew up with the rich life of chapel choir, Don Cupitt, faith, thinking, working things out and talking with the CU. (Mind you, then they usually kept in telling me I was wrong!) Eventually, aged 30, I clicked with faith, and I gave my adult commitment to Jesus Christ, seeking his forgiveness and peace of mind. I trained as a surgeon and neurosurgeon, dealing with head injury. I have been ordained 20 years and never run a church, working in self-supporting ministry – in A&E, and in a hospice as a doctor. I came to believe that there are very few convinced atheists, when the chips are down. I am now chaplain at the University in Bath.
There are three hallmarks of this locus of ministry – outside church, alongside people in the ‘marketplace’:
• Conversations tend to be much more about faith than church. When patients used to say to me that they were “not church goers” or “not religious”, I would reply that I was not talking about church on Sunday, but rather ‘God and all that stuff’. This often sparks a different and more hope-filled conversation.
• It is also ministry to all people of all stage of faith, different traditions and those of no faith (yet). It is a challenge now for the church to include those who feel ‘outside’. Jesus did - and we should. I note the LGBTQ+ month starting here in Cambridge. As we walked around Cambridge this weekend, we saw the rainbow flags flying on all the colleges. This, surely, is a community who needs loving back in.
• Faith today must be authentic and real. Today’s young adults are generation Z, the children of those parents who would write ‘none’ on any census asking for religion or faith. Generation Z are a group who are looking at faith without the baggage of their parents.
Let’s now look at Luke. What does he bring to infancy narratives? Luke was a Gentile, a thinker, Greek speaking, and a physician. I imagine him as a doctor, observing people, analysing and asking why – what was the evidence. Look at the start of Luke’s Gospel, where he writes: “Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who, from the first, were eye witnesses and servants of the Word. Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything, from the beginning it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you most excellent Theophilus. So that you may see the certainty of the things you have been taught.”
Luke wrote this Gospel and Acts. We learn something of his experience, Acts 16:11 (“we put out to sea”) tells us that Luke joined Paul on his missionary journey into Europe and therefore saw the miraculous – the moving of the Holy Spirit. I love trying to imagine how Luke’s faith and experience informed his gospel account.
In our reading today, we see some of the unique insights that Luke brings to the Gospel. Only Luke tells us of these encounters. He has already recorded Gabriel meeting Zechariah and telling him that his wife Elizabeth would have a son. When Zechariah reasonably says: “But we’re both past it”, Gabriel says that nothing is impossible with God. The miracle occurs accompanied by a sign; Zechariah is struck dumb until John the Baptist is born.
Today, we hear the conversation between Gabriel and Mary, after Gabriel has met her and told her she will have a son. Imagine that dynamic - Mary a devout country girl chosen by God because of her faith, asks reasonably, “how this will be, since ima virgin?”. Gabriel explains the supernatural encounter with the Holy Spirit, and then gives Mary a great gift. Gabriel says to her that even her cousin Elizabeth, who was said to be barren, is in the sixth month of her pregnancy: “For nothing is impossible with God”. Why is this a gift? Well, imagine Mary waking up the following morning after this encounter, rubbing her eyes and recalling the night. She might have said ‘WOW that was a strange dream’, but then, as sometimes happens when we’re meant to remember dreams, the memory lingers, and Mary recalls and wonders whether it was just her imagination or can it be true? She would then remember her cousin. What does she do? She thinks, “I’ll go and see Elizabeth and try and work out what’s going on”.
And it is only Luke who recalls that remarkable meeting. Mary travels to see her cousin and on her greeting, Elizabeth feels her baby (John the Baptist – 6 months in the womb) stir and she is filled with the Holy Spirit, giving anointed words. If we do the maths, we see that Elizabeth is six months pregnant, and that Mary stays with her for three months before returning home, leaving before John the Baptist is born. Therefore, we can imagine the son of God, was only a few cells old, as Mary travelled to see her cousin.
So, I conclude with three words describing today’s reflection: work, power and gift.
• Luke, in these nativity narratives, describes the early work of the Holy Spirit. This dynamic is the only way these things could have happened.
• Luke also records at the start of Acts the event of Pentecost – this fact of history – when 12 followers of Jesus Christ were so inspired that they go into the marketplace and speak with such power that we are here 2000 years later, part of a worldwide following of Jesus Christ. So here we have Luke describing the power of the Holy Spirit.
• As I conclude I want to ask you a question, to appeal to your experience. How many of you have woken up to know the answer to a conundrum, or been helped by an unexpected comment or look from someone, or a special feeling? Can I have a show of hands? Thank you. So, who is this? This is gift the Holy Spirit. And if he is reaching to us from others at some point, so he can flow from us to others. We, therefore, by our faith, are channels for the Holy Spirit, and in ways that we may never know. We are part of the re-awakening of faith in the UK. It is God’s work, through the Holy Spirit, in Jesus’ name.
May the God of Hope fill you, and me, with all joy and peace as we trust in Him, so that we may overflow with hope, by the power of the Holy Spirit (Romans 15:13)
Emmanuel College, Cambridge
University of Bath
Sermon given by Nigel Rawlinson at Evensong, Emmanuel College, Cambridge (2-2-20)